Don’s Feasts

He was in his best smart casual clothes, had a bit of product in his hair and just for one minute he looked shy. But for one minute only. Because this was the boss, the tour guide, the director, the man. He was, of course, going to make it work. It was within his power, well within.

We’d had to talk him into coming to Belgrade to pick us up. That could have been unfair. He was quite big enough to look after himself, in fact a potent brew when roused. But I don’t know what it’s like crossing the Croatian border into Serbia, driving a rented car and needing to offer a paper thin even if true reason if asked — picking up some Australian friends to drive them back through Eastern Croatia to eat, drink and make merry. You could get some arsehole on the gate who wants to refight the war; or you could, as we later discovered, run into a cheery squat young woman with a large pistol on her hip who simply wanted to wish us a good day.

You don’t know, and of course Don wouldn’t say, what he might have been thinking. Far too practised at this game to say; just waiting to play the cards as they are led. Or as Lord Rowland would say hands flying up in the air, eyes rolling, ‘Don. It’s Don. You know Don.’

As it happened, nothing did happen. He was there, we had had a few days of investigation of the White City and beyond, so we were there too. We even knew where to take him for dinner, Dwa Jelena (Two Deer), to offer him the chance to run through what might be wrong with the cuisine. Or the wine. Or the company. But no. It was a party, a fine reunion. Hoorah. I’d forgotten what huge fun we had together.


A new chapter had begun.

From Belgrade it was the same vast expanse of the Pannonian Plain, laser-levelled for agriculture, that we were passing through as when we went to Sremski Karlovci with Joci, but the green protuberance of Fruska Gora (‘The Frankish Mountain’, a reference to ancient borders) was to our right rather than our left. Don may have driven us along the ridge of the national park for reasons of picturesque-ity … I can’t remember. We didn’t dawdle; I do remember that. We had crossed the border into Croatia (the agreeable woman mentioned above) before lunch time.

IMG_0756.jpgWe arrived at Ilok, more specifically at Stari Podrumi (‘Old Basements’, probably Cellars really) a winery/ accommodation spot where the solid doors closed with a satisfying ‘climp’ and the windows were the complex European type which open in several directions if not necessarily at the same time. Suddenly Croatia rather than Serbia. Out our window I could see the Danube, on one side Srbija; and on the other Hrvatska. We were just into Croatia. A couple of hundred metres. But it felt like a long way further than that.


We’d got a bit starey-eyed as this photo suggests, a bit tired, and I could have had a sleep — but I didn’t, and of course I was just as glad. There’s a lot to engage with here at this junction of worlds, not to mention the appetising consequences of some of the most fertile soils in Europe.

The feasts began immediately.

IMG_0760.jpgLunch was Paprika Fish Stew, followed by (at left) two types of pike — rolled in beer batter and chunks deep fried — with catfish in a seeded batter of some sort, accompanied by an award-winning Iločki Podrumi gewurtztraminer. Whatever anyone else thought, I believed it was important to make the most of staying at a superstar winery.

After lunch we had a tour of the cellar with a young woman who spoke excellent English and besides being delightful had answers to all our questions. Quite good going really.IMG_0767.jpgHer name was Maria. I think she stayed with us as our guide to the church, the fort and other highlights of the town. I hope we gave her a good tip.IMG_0771.jpgIt was just near here that our vehicle pulled over and we had an encounter with strawberries, the best strawberries I have ever eaten. They were startlingly good: plump, as big as a baby’s fist but not inflated artificially with hormones, crimson, with a strong inviting smell and irresistible flavour. Powerhouses of the genre.

And this was all before our trip to Principovac for dinner. Don knows how to pack an itinerary.

vinskiturizamuslavoniji-2.jpg‘Near the centre of the historic town of Ilok, on the landscape hill offering stunning views of Ilok, Srijem and Backa, lies the Principovac Castle and Estate that was built in 1864th as summer residence of the Odescalchi family – The Dukes of Ilok, who stayed here during hunting seasons and grape harvestings. Whether you are a true wine connoisseur or you’re on just your way to become one, when you taste the royal Traminer and Graševina from Principovac in different styles you’ll realize that wine is here much more than a profession – it is a lifestyle.

‘Inside the restored castle of Odescalchi family is the Principovac restaurant, which has rich gourmet offer – new age cuisine that is based on indigenous ingredients, flavours of the Croatian Danube and Slavonia prepared in a sophisticated way serving each course with a glass of wine chosen from our rich wine offer.’

Weddings, parties, anything. Four-star accommodation, golf, team building, tennis and badminton courts, playgrounds for children, aquarium, ‘8 km of wine roads ideal for running, romantic walks, bike rides, moped rides or electric car rides’. Exhausting even thinking about it.

We dined at the restaurant with the ‘rich gourmet offer’, and on our own. I’m not 100% sure that the staff thought our presence was preferable to getting home for a big feed of strawberries, but it was all just fine.IMG_0775.jpgTonight, for our pleasure, hmm we drank the Graševina and that was something to behold… now, not in order, medallions of veal, cabbage rolls (closest to us, which were amazing), steak en croute and ‘Herbie’s Dinner’ (which I may have rendered incorrectly) which Don assured us was an outstanding regional speciality and I can’t remember for the life of me what it was. We finished with some of the chateau’s palachinka, a fine digestive. I slept like baby.

On a fresh morning, the precursor to a hottish day, we had the most leisurely of breakfasts under this linden tree. Great coffee. It was sort of perfect.IMG_0777.jpgThe door on the right is the entrance to the cellars, the door on the left to the feasting hall, a little piece of eastern Europe which could have been lot of places.IMG_0765.jpg

We were on our way further east 40 km to Vukovar but we took some time to have a splash in the Danube, a doughty river. Lord R on an embankment.IMG_0773.jpg

I was interested to see Vukovar because, with Srebrenica, it is one of the very serious sites of the 1990s Balkan wars. What would be left from scenes like this I wondered.Unknown.jpeg

During this very muddled conflict (which I have tried to describe elsewhere), fighting broke out in Slavonia (eastern Croatia) in May 1991. In August, the predominantly Serbian Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) launched a full-scale attack against Croatian-held territory of which Vukovar was the lynchpin.

Vukovar was defended by around 1,800 lightly armed soldiers of the Croatian National Guard (ZNG) and civilian volunteers, against approximately 36,000 JNA soldiers and Serb paramilitaries equipped with heavy armour and artillery. During the battle, shells and rockets were fired into the town at a rate of up to 12,000 a day. At the time, it was the fiercest and most protracted battle in Europe since 1945, and Vukovar was ‘the first major European town to be entirely destroyed since the Second World War’ (see below).

When Vukovar fell on 18 November 1991, several hundred soldiers and civilians had been killed by Serb forces. In one case at least ‘massacred’ is the term used by Croat commentators. Two hundred bodies were exhumed from a single grave. Subsequently most of the city was ‘ethnically cleansed’ of its non-Serb population — at least 20,000 inhabitants were expelled from the city — and it became part of the self-declared Republic of Serbian Krajina.

There are terrible stories about the 87-day siege, of starving women and children living in cellars and other underground dwellings, inevitable parts of the horror of war. I don’t know much about wars, but the story of the Serb combatants might be more unusual. This follows one account with convincing sources.

Serbia was never formally at war and no general mobilisation was carried out. An estimated 150,000 Serbs went abroad to avoid conscription, and many others deserted or went into hiding. Only 13 percent of conscripts reported for duty. Another 40,000 staged rebellions in towns across Serbia; the Serbian newspaper Vreme commented in July 1991 that the situation was one of ‘total military disintegration’.

Serb morale on the Slavonian battlefield was poor. JNA commanders resorted to firing on their own positions to motivate their men to fight. When the commander of a JNA unit at Vukovar demanded to know who was willing to fight and who wanted to go home, the unit split equally. One conscript, unable to decide which side to take, shot himself. A JNA officer who served at Vukovar later described how his men refused to obey orders, on several occasions ‘abandoning combat vehicles, discarding weapons, gathering on some flat ground, sitting and singing Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon.’

A tank driver, Vladimir Živković, drove his vehicle from the front line at Vukovar to the Yugoslav parliament in Belgrade, where he parked it on the steps in front of the building. He was arrested and declared insane by the authorities. His treatment enraged his colleagues, who protested by taking over a local radio station at gunpoint and issuing a declaration that ‘we are not traitors, but we do not want to be aggressors’.

But things changed: fresh (and more capable and determined, or ruthless if you like) leadership in the form of General Života Panić, and fresh ‘troops’, Serbian paramilitary volunteers: well armed, highly motivated, undisciplined, famously brutal. ‘Arkan’s (Željko Ražnatović) Tigers’ had arrived.

The commander of the southern JNA corps was videotaped after the decisive battle praising the Tigers: ‘The greatest credit for this goes to Arkan’s volunteers! Although some people accuse me of acting in collusion with paramilitary formations, these are not paramilitary formations here! These are men who came voluntarily to fight for the Serbian cause. We surround a village, he dashes in and kills whoever refuses to surrender. On we go in triumph!’

And the core of the city, with its unbroken history since neolithic times, was left in ruins.

The degree of destruction of the city is contested. For example an American historian who visited the city shortly after the decisive battle writes: ‘I want to correct a misstatement that has become an urban myth in the annals of the Yugoslav wars. Having visited Vukovar shortly after the conclusion of hostilities and several times since, I can assure you that the city was far from “totally destroyed”. To be more precise, only the relatively small downtown area was devastated. Although there was significant damage to outlying structures that were targeted by JNA artillery (every non-Orthodox church, the train station, the Eltz palace/museum, the water tower, among many others), most of the rest of the town was surprisingly intact.’ And I must say that’s how the pictures look to me. 

But less contested is the damage that was done to the longstanding multicultural harmony of the city.

Some indication of its more recent demographic diversity can be gained from this table.

National structure of the population of Vukovar:









One commentator says: Before the war, more than 20 ethnic groups lived in Vukovar. Not only Serbs and Croats, who made up the majority, and those who identified as “Yugoslavs” (roughly 10 percent), but also Ruthenians/Rusyns, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and many others. Moreover, the citizens of Vukovar were proud of their multicultural city, and ethnic background was irrelevant in daily life and social relations. That is no more. The city’s children are now educated separately by ethnic group; the Cyrillic (Serbia’s choice of alphabet) on road and other signs required by Croatia’s constitutional protection of minority groups is regularly vandalised.

Vukovar had for centuries been an important port on the Danube with the interesting demographic history that that entails. It seems to have been the world’s heart of copper-smithing during the Vučedol culture of 3000-2200BC. At one time it had eight mosques to cater for its Ottoman population. At other times it has been home to the Romans (who for centuries used the Danube as a line of defence), Vandals, Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavic Russians, Magyars, Slovaks, Jews, Austrians and so on. But there is something about multiculturalism that really offends some people. They just hate it.

The history, but not the offence, was on display in the city’s wonderful museum. I’m not sure that I was looking properly or if we ducked through the side of the city — I might in fact not have credited just how complete the restoration of the town had been. This today, for example, is exactly the same view as the troubled ruins above.


The equivalent of $40m Australian dollars (kuna from the EU in fact) has been spent on the restoration of Castle Eltz, the building housing the museum. There are are still some pockmarks in the tower, but everything else was in pristine condition. And excellent.

IMG_0791.jpgOne reason for its interest is that the only reference to the recent troubles is some silent pictures in the top floor. The other floors are concerned with the region’s history from pre-historic times with consistently thoughtful and high quality exhibits. 

Zoran, below, made a florid, arty and enthusiastic guide. He could have been dressed by Eastern Market which will make sense to no one but Myrna.


IMG_0786.jpgJust as it happens in the basement  there was an exhibition about torture which I confess I had to be dragged away from.

There are just so many ways to use physical pain, most of which seem to be been employed since time immemorial, and most of which seem to have found willing employers.

Perhaps we need to be reminded of this when the US decides that water boarding — a very old form of punishment —  is a perfectly acceptable way to force confessions and information out of prisoners.

To far happier moments. We had arrived in the middle of the Kopački Rit wetlands, ‘the greenest waters and forests in the whole of Slavonia’, at the junction of the Drava and Danube Rivers.IMG_0798.jpgThe border between Serbia and Croatia at this point is a long series of curlicues (the thin black line below), perhaps to share the best aspects of this highly fertile region. For reasons of convenience I’ve tipped this map over, North is on the left hand side. It’s just to illustrate what I mean, and you’ll get the point.Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 1.51.22 pm.png

A highlight, and a superior photo of a highly photogenic subject.IMG_0802.jpgWe had moved on to the Komoran Restoran, another of Don’s Specials. ‘Komoran’ means ‘gloomy’ in Hungarian, but I’ve spelt it wrong obviously. ‘Kormoran’ means ‘cormorant’ in Croatian, and that would be far more suitable because of its splendid setting in the middle of the wetlands. And we were having a major regional specialty.In our region Catfish on Forked Branch and cooked in smoke is the most appreciated fish specialties’ (tourist info), and this was it on arrival.IMG_0806.jpgDon said it was even more special because it had been caught from the bottom of Danube in the muddy waters, and er hem I must confess that was how it tasted. (Look, you can’t go ooh ahh about everything. You’ve got to call it how you see it. The spuds were nice and the visuals outstanding. We were also entertained by some nesting and very familiar martins.)

It was 20 km, if that, to Karanac where we were to spend the night.IMG_0834.jpg Karanac is an ‘ethno village’ whichhas in the past few years become a magnet for numerous foreign and domestic tourists who enjoy the rich gastronomic and tourist offer of this area. In Karanac visitors can experience the feeling of far gone, past times, where each household had a story that was slowly carried on from generation to generation, keeping its authenticity and lifestyle far from the hustle and bustle of an urban area.’ Website publicity, but all true.

What that meant in addition was that we stayed at a mate of Don’s who was pumping up the tyres of this industry, that you could stay in a delightful cabin like this, IMG_0820.jpgthat you could trip over an offering like this in the footpath,IMG_0818.jpg


IMG_0821.jpgthat you could stay somewhere with a garden that would feed you most things you would want to eat,IMG_0828.jpgand that you actually could eat at the local pub. IMG_0813.jpgPaprika soup was the dish du jour, the highlight special and it was delicious.

It also meant that Don was in his element. Never looked better.IMG_0830.jpgThis was taken, a regretful farewell, after a most sumptuous all-star breakfast a lot of which had come out of the garden or from the chooks and cows in the paddock. This was a highly successful deviation.

We went further north up into the corner of Croatia to Batina where the Allies (a reminder, Yugoslavs and Russians, allies) crossed the Danube in the closing phases of the Second World War.IMG_0836.jpgHow did they do that? A unit consisting mostly of soldiers from Vojvodina (now northern Serbia) crossed the river on rafts or fishing boats under cover of an enormous artillery bombardment of the German positions on the right bank of the river. The battle went to and fro as efforts were made to supplement the allied soldiers on this side of the river, until after 18 days all Germans between the two rivers, Drava and Danube, had been killed or driven out.








According to some historians the Battle of Batina was the biggest battle by number of participants, intensity of fighting, and strategic importance that occurred in Yugoslavia during the World War II.

South to Đakovo (with a ‘dj’) and its horses. The Stud Farm in Đakovo was established in 1506 which qualifies it to be among the oldest stud farms in Europe. Horses of the Lipizzaner breed have been bred in the Stud Farm since the beginning of the 19th century. I think the only other Lipizzaner ‘school’, a successor to this one, the original, is in Austria.Unknown.jpeg

The horses trot, dance and jump and do clever formation things while you watch, delighted. 1.jpgI’m not so much a horse person, but amongst our number were those who are.IMG_0849.jpgHe knew what he was looking for.

IMG_0842.jpgWe had look at the cathedral, yes and no; its crypt, better.

But then, suddenly, hordes of young people started appearing.

Hordes …


IMG_0845.jpgIt was the last day of school, and all the graduands had come into the middle of town, stopping it absolutely — but with no complaints, this was a significant cultural event — and with their umbrellas and their costumes they performed a lengthy quadrille (dance in fours). It was one of those moments that can happen when you’re travelling, completely unexpected but such a thrill to see.

They were so well drilled and well behaved. Youth and beauty, a joy to behold. I asked Don what happens next and he said, they go off and get drunk. Of course.

Back to Zagreb for a warm welcome from the family: Mirjana, Lucas, Ivan, Dina and Nika.IMG_0869.jpg

And that night — what can I say — another visit to the Restoran Trnjanska and its finest black lamb. The Grey Falcon had, as always, done his job.IMG_0878.jpg

Port Lincoln


Two words. Dean Lukin.

Three words actually. Dinko ‘Dean’ Lukin is the actual name, a bit of Croatian blood swirling round in the background there, the first and only Australian to win a gold medal in weightlifting at the Olympics, and not just any gold medal — the super Super Heavyweight Division, Sooooper Heavyweight, cream and ice cream, three big scoops, on your plum pudding — 138 kgs himself on that day in 1984 in Los Angeles. Beat the American with a final clean and jerk of 240kgs, a personal best.

Sure the eastern bloc countries stayed home but that’s their choice, and you might have forgotten his golds in the Commonwealth Games both sides of his Olympic triumph. Tonga, Fiji giving it their finest. The dramatic eyebrows didn’t do it by themselves but they played their part. He liked to lift angry. Don’t we all. He lifted his 240 after his brother had slapped his face. Hard.

After his competitive life he decided to drop weight and was so successful the circumference of his waist became smaller than either of his thighs at their fabulous peak as he became an elegant multimillionaire property developer and, with the publication of The Dean Lukin Diet, a best-selling author.

He has a son Dean Jnr, (in the middle below) an accountant and a bit of a hard charger with very large images in his forward vision.

581fe174a71eaa6fe7371b408aab7436.jpeg‘The Lukin family’s $289 million dollar Port Lincoln development has State Government approval, opening the way for up to 280 jobs a year during the next decade.

The project includes a 300-500 block housing development in two residential areas on the 118ha site, as well as a major wharf revamp and an industrial precinct. Lukin Corporation chief executive Dean Lukin Jr said it was the largest regional development in South Australia for many years.’ (Adelaide Advertiser 8/8/14)

This development includes a golf course shaped like a shark, and designed by? Of course, The Shark. (at left, Dinko Dean on the right. See what I mean about the eyebrows. Perhaps you can’t. They’re a bit like The Joker in Batman.)

Dinko Dean’s father, Dinko Snr, was a major figure in the development of Port’s bluefin tuna industry (current turnover round $420m annually) most importantly by beginning the process of catching tuna in the wild and then farming and fattening them in pens for sale, mostly to Asia. He made a fortune. He also left his first wife Ann in 1993 causing ructions in the business which as a result closed for a time and in 1996 met his second wife, Lakanna, a 29 year-old Thai woman who was working in a local restaurant. She changed her first name to Lukina because it meant ‘belonging to Lukin’ in Croatian. We’re deep in gossip now, but as you might possibly anticipate there was trouble over the will. Big trouble. 

But Dean Lukin … mate … wouldn’t you wanna get a bit involved with where he grew up?

Two more words. Made up words this time. Makybe Diva.

Triple Crown. Three Melbourne Cups. In A Row. 2003. 2004. 2005. Over the distance may well make Winx, international Horse of the Year 2018, look a bit ordinary. That might be a bit like comparing Marcus Bontempelli with Dame Margot Fonteyn but you get the idea.

Owner: Tony Santic, a bit of Croatian blood swirling round in the background there. That would be Tony of ‘Tony’s Tuna’, a very major Port Lincoln concern selling marine produce throughout the world. On his staff at one time he had Maureen Dellar, Kylie Bascomb, Belinda Grocke, Dianne Tonkin and Vanessa Parthenis.IMG_2051.jpgThe Tuna Boat Owners Association who are also behind the cultural centre and its program, the art competition, the very fine local sports facilities, the Tunarama festival and most of the other things that happen in town, made a major contribution to the erection of this statue.

Port Lincoln, not to be missed.


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Screen Shot 2019-02-08 at 5.01.12 pm.pngWe flew there. From Adelaide it’s a 650km drive of variable interest round the top of the gulfs. In the Saab 340 it took about 40 minutes.

We hired a Yaris. There was nothing wrong with it apart from the suspension, road holding, transmission, engine and brakes.

The airport is 14 km from the town, looking for a suitable bit of flat land I guess. The first view across Boston Bay is slightly disconcerting. Did the silos have to be that big, I mean THAT big, you wonder.IMG_2056.jpgAt Port Lincoln we worship at the temple of Ceres. (Note the Santa installed above the ‘R’ below. Viterra might be a Canadian company but they’re making an effort.) Round the back Lord Gypsum has his own premises.IMG_2259.jpgThe grain &c. mostly comes in trucks these days. There was an endless and noisy procession of B Doubles doing a loop out through the bulk handler. Once it came by train. I wondered just how the line hooked up to Adelaide or anywhere else really. Maybe Whyalla. But it doesn’t, and didn’t. Its termini are just termini, two lines parked out on their own, finishing at the major centres of Thevenard and Buckleboo. Port Lincoln could, if you let it, feel very isolated.

But it doesn’t. It feels like a going concern. It has a population of about 16,000 and is the ninth biggest town in South Australia. (Quick quiz: Adelaide is obviously number one. Tell me four of the other seven. OK, three then. See the end of this blog for an answer.) And it’s well lubricated with money.

As far as I could tell Port Lincoln comes in two parts: Traditional (or Classic) and Contemporary (or Deluxe).

Traditional: Liverpool StreetIMG_2424.JPG


Foreshore, groovy place:IMG_2433.JPG

Foreshore, special occasion:IMG_2417.JPG

Foreshore, another special occasion. The Tunarama Festival’s highlight, the tuna throw:image.adapt.1200.HIGH.jpg

Foreshore, safe swimming:IMG_2178.jpg

Foreshore, also safe swimming. With that very gentle shoreline gradient of the South Australian gulfs, it’s a long way to get your calves wet with the tide out. And yes it is a municipal bulldozer doing something unfathomable further down the beach.IMG_2160.jpg

Eyre Peninsula gateaux. No surprises here:IMG_2192.jpg

Houses: A couple of defining aspects of traditional South Australian domestic architecture. 1. A colour scheme of rust and sandstone, or maroon and ochre if you like. 2. Brick with masonry infill. A keenly illustrative example:IMG_2144.jpg

Also. Suburban versions. IMG_2161.jpg



And more up market:image-1.jpgThis one was for sale: $670,000. It had a commanding view of the silos. Just incidentally, I would like to point to the four types of gardens in the four photos. There was a lot more of numbers 2 and 3, than 1 and 4.

But then you go round Kirton Point, and another world emerges — Deano World. You’ve left Boston Bay and are almost in Proper Bay. And that is its real name. Advisory nomenclature: that’s where you should park your boat, and that’s where they do park their boats. A small part of the tuna fleet.IMG_2239 (1).jpg

And if you’re lucky enough to be an owner with a fishing licence …IMG_2226.jpgIMG_2229.jpg… complete with statuary on the corner which you mightn’t be able to see in the bigger pic. (But at left.) The name of the boat is ‘The Battler’, and you can get a very nice reflected view of the Yaris in the lounge room window.

Just by going round the point, we’ve suddenly arrived at the Gold Coast.



IMG_2222.jpgCollective noun for palm trees. A surfeit.IMG_2228.jpgThe white building at the back here is the new municipal swimming pool and leisure centre (gym). Forget the shark proof pool on the foreshore, you don’t need to swim in the sea any more. In front is a pub with pokies, and a boat that says:IMG_2253 (1).jpgGet into it.

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I had chosen a motel on the beach unwittingly in what I am calling the Traditional part of town. And there we found Del Giorno’s where we ate very well. From the most extensive menu: 

DINKO TUNA STEAK: char grilled, with sautéed cherry tomato and chimmichirri sauce 34


KING PRAWNS LUKINA: Western King Prawns on house made potato rosti, fresh avocado, cherry tomato and coriander, with chilli 37

But we also went to Coffin Bay.IMG_2173.jpgThis is a surrogate for a photo. ‘Wake’ by Sally Kunze: $1200. It could have won the Annual Port Lincoln Art Competition, on show when we were there, but didn’t. The people running the show told me there were more than 60 artists living in and around Port Lincoln. But it’s here because that’s what Coffin Bay, with its oyster beds, looks a bit like. In addition, while there is trouble finding something interesting to do with the foreground, the sky’s good.

South Australia has got a thing about food and drink, of course, and if you eat and drink badly there you will have had a run of appallingly bad luck. I had a great meal at Amalfi in Adelaide, but I think the best meal we had was in Coffin Bay. (Population: 611.  Speaking only English at home, 97.8%. Most common response for religion: No Religion 64.3%.)

IMG_2166.jpgMatthew Flinders named the Bay, but not ‘Coffin’ with its lugubrious overtones. You might imagine one of his sailors dying and being buried there just for example.

He named it Coffin‘s Bay after Sir Isaac Coffin, a British baronet who was the naval attache at the port where Flinders’ ship ‘The Investigator’ was fitted out. Thinking about it, that probably doesn’t do a thing for the lugubrious overtones. I wonder if Sir Isaac spent much time on the topic. But all this would probably be news to anyone who has spoken of Coffin Bay or its produce in the last 50 years. (At left MF doing compass work just outside the Archway named for him.) 

It is famous for its oysters which, with Sydney Rock and Tasmanian, round out the holy triumvirate of Australian edible molluscs. I am inclined towards Sydney Rock myself, with that bit of extra flavour generated by all the pollution.

We had some oysters but not at Coffin Bay’s 1802 Oyster Bar and Bistro where we lunched. We had Heirloom tomato salad with whipped goats curd, pickled fennel, wild rocket salsa and sourdough; House-smoked fish pate with fennel lavosh and pickled baby vegetables; and King George whiting escabeche, lightly fried and cooked in charred orange juice, with potato fondant, cavalo nero and heirloom carrots; washed down with a Clare Valley reisling. And, while it might sound just a bit SA hipster-ish, it was a feast.

I’d say, even if you’re not a fan of weightlifting or if you happen to miss the Tunarama Festival, its still worth going to Port Lincoln. It’s another world.

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IMG_1867.jpgStrathalbyn, in the middle of the Fleurieu Peninsula and in the middle of a drought.

IMG_2398.JPGThe State Library in Adelaide where we found Sturt’s journals.

IMG_2403.JPGFrom a distance it could be a weaving. But it’s not. Just blue dots, and your eyes. A wonderful piece of work. ‘Tali. Sand Dune’ by Ken Kunmanara, who is from the APY Lands and who died at Mutitjulu, part of the circuit, in 2018. The most excellent Art Gallery of South Australia.

IMG_2409.JPGPirie Street, Adelaide late at night. The City of Adelaide, Light’s block (roughly 3km x 2km) enclosed by gardens, has a most desirable and deeply unusual mix of domestic and public buildings, light industry, coffee shops, Main Street shopping, units, historic terraces, institutional buildings, hotels and other sorts of accommodation, laneways, major thoroughfares, clubs, galleries, restaurants and everything else that could make life interesting. And you CAN live there. It’s a living city.

IMG_2145.jpgSimon and Mags at Maggie and Colin Beer’s farm near Nuriootpa. Could have bought, you know, jams and chutney, Pheasant Farm Pate, but didn’t. We were too late for lunch. Much as I love them, looked and left.

IMG_2297.jpgAt the gate of Bethany vineyards, the oldest in the Barossa. Without trying, we’d sort of been following these Tour Downunder chaps around and, suddenly, we had a chance to see them. They went past in a blur of colour and with a remarkable whirring noise. Most exciting. Richie Porte with his cheeks blown out at the front. Didn’t do any good. Again.

IMG_2344.jpgTerrific silo art at Waikerie. A yabby on the left by Jimmy DVate and a series of ideas on the right.

IMG_2356.jpgSouth of Robinvale, table grapes covered with dozens, in sum thousands, of hectares of plastic sheeting. What do they do with that when they finish? All so we can avoid one of the really deleterious effects of climate change, i.e. having grapes with a bit of brown on them.

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The Ten Most Populous towns in South Australia: In order, Adelaide, Mt Gambier, Whyalla, Gawler, Port Pirie, Bridgewater, Port Augusta, Murray Bridge, Port Lincoln, Mt Barker, Victor Harbour, Aldinga.

Population of South Australia: 1.67m. Population of Adelaide: 1.32m.


The Mouth of the Murray

‘Most of the effect of climate change will be felt through water.’ (Sir Nicholas Stern in his major report for the UK Government The Economics of Climate Change)
Somewhere over there between the two dredges (on this day wearing red) is the mouth of the Murray. Despite having a collection area of 1.1 million square kilometres, one-seventh of Australia, bigger than France and Germany combined, and collecting on average half a million gigalitres of water annually from the Basin as a whole — a stupendous amount, one gigalitre is a billion litres — not enough water flows to the end of the Murray-Darling river system to maintain a gap in the coastal dune enabling access to the sea. The dredging process costs $6m annually. Staggering isn’t it.
rm_mouth_deh_aerialphoto_1981_x.jpgIt has in the past closed entirely. In 1981, even before the Millennium Drought had kicked in, both branches — Goolwa (to the left) and Coorong (to the right) — had silted up and, as you can see in the picture above, the ‘entrance’ is an exposed sand bar.

* * * * *IMG_2317.jpgThese pelicans are fishing at Blanchetown lock, Number One (of 26), closest to the mouth, after the barrages. Their catch will eventually be affected by the disastrous fish deaths round Menindee.

* * * * *

There are three stories here, all complex. All have the makings of a tragedy, the tragedy that the news right now is circling around — catastrophe today, forgotten tomorrow. But the story in the end will be told by the mouth of the Murray.

2230123_1520484054032.pngThe Murray-Darling Basin covers a vast amount of territory in four states and the ACT, far more than most people imagine. In a blog in part about the floods in Toowoomba in Queensland I mentioned that the rain that fell in town during those floods could prospectively have ended up in Lake Alexandrina 2795km away: it’s downhill all the way.

But it wouldn’t today.


It wouldn’t today because in many places the Darling is dry. Between 1945 and 2008 (years at the end of two almighty droughts) there were never any ‘no flow events’. It was always a flowing river continuous from above Bourke to Wentworth where it meets the Murray.

At present where it’s not dry it is often de-oxygenated because of lack of flow, or covered in blue-green or the more dangerous red algae. Those factors will all kill fish (in their millions as it turns out) and the many other creatures which depend on that water, including the people who pipe it into their homes at Walgett (not the dry Namoi any more but bore water), Brewarrina (average annual water bill $1972, the highest in the NSW) and Wilcannia, all significant Aboriginal communities, all already significantly disadvantaged. 

Unknown-1.jpegBourke was once an important inland port. The evidence is still there. The paddle steamers with their cargoes of wool going south and supplies going north would tie up to the top rail of its wharf (at left). They could and did (if not for long) ply the length of the Darling and the Murray and from time to time steam out through the mouth to reach Adelaide.

But at Bourke now, and I remember the shock I got when flying in for the first time, they grow cotton, hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton, one of the thirstiest agricultural crops in one of the hottest and driest parts of this country. Representatives of the industry assure us that this is done in a highly efficient manner and that the product is of surpassing quality.

agriculture_costs_graph.gifWhy is the Darling dry? Because of the very bad drought that has affected western NSW for some time. No argument. The Darling runs almost exclusively through arid country where evaporation eats up 94% of the rain that does fall.

But a second reason is that cotton farmers — operating at all the black dots north of Pooncarie in the map above — have re-engineered the landscape to harvest every available flow. Two cotton-producing companies, Webster Ltd and Peter Harris Inc, have rights to 70% of the water in the headquarters of the Barwon-Darling. More than 80% of water taken from this region is unmetered. There have never been any prosecutions for water theft here. The Queensland government believes in very light touch regulation, whereas, in this arena, the NSW Govt aided and abetted by Barnaby Joyce when he was Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources just seems straight out baldly corrupt.03b812315771b4a43348ef084e449ddf.jpegDamming floodwater at Cubbie Station.

Cubbie Station (see map above, near Dirranbandi, Qld) was formed by buying up 51 properties with their accompanying water rights to be the largest irrigated farm in the world today. It’s storage on the Culgoa runs for 28 kms. It has rights to 460,000 megalitres of water — more than the aggregate of every other water user downstream in NSW! — enough to grow 200 square kilometres of cotton. 

That could be the case — but as well as the fuss the publicity of these facts has caused, there hasn’t been enough rain to make harvests of anything like this sort, to the extent that the property was put up for sale and sold in 2013 to a Chinese corporation. It seems true that there is no water at all in Cubbie’s storages at present. But there is a great deal, harvested according to a generous interpretation of the law, in the dams and storages of other cotton growers in northern NSW.

And then there was Barnaby Joyce’s brokerage of the Federal Government’s buy back of water rights from Tandou Station (near Menindee, also owned by Webster’s, chief executive Chris Corrigan) in two tranches totalling $112m. The government paid twice the going rate per litre for what is described locally as ’empty buckets’, water rights which are nominal only and never likely to be accessible except during major floods when most people have plenty of water. So $112m was spent on something which will have no possible benefit for downstream users or the general health of the river. Good money if you can get it, and top work thank you Barnaby.

Given the ferociously political nature of these issues, to be even-handed, if you want to read how Michael Murray, the general manager of Cotton Australia, responded to a particular set of criticisms by Sarah Hanson-Young, click here. In terms of lessons in media management it is worth noting how he dodges all the fundamental questions by focusing on specifics. He doesn’t for example have much to say about the appropriateness of cotton-growing for Australia. That is taken as given. He has recently said, “As an industry, we are growing very tired of being ‘the whipping boy’ for all the problems that are being brought on by this crippling drought”. 

The ABC research unit offers the following. ‘In 2008-9 … whilst urban water users faced severe restrictions … and the vast majority of the [Murray-Darling] Basin was enduring the peak of the worst drought in living memory, the cultivation of cotton and rice consumed 981 gigalitres of water. This figure equates to the combined water consumption of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide (990 gigalitres) over the same period, to produce a crop with a combined value of less than $650 million, in a year when the gross value of national agricultural production was in excess of $46 billion’.

So, number one, the drought. Sure. But two, crazy use of the water driven by politically protected upstream commercial interests. And then there is three: the NSW government’s policy regarding the lower Darling, ‘de-commissioning’ the Menindee Lakes, a casual eco-catastrophe.

‘De-commission’. What a word. The five Menindee Lakes provide a buffer for the Darling, holding prospectively large amounts of flood water which can be released when river flows decline maintaining the health of the lower Darling as well as providing their own natural ecologies, an intriguing destination for Outback travellers and the lifeblood of Menindee, a small local community.

images.jpegThe lakes have also been the main source of Broken Hill’s water supply. (A modest proportion comes from captured rainfall and local natural aquifers.) Water has run through a 140km pipeline providing one important reason for maintaining good supplies of water in the lakes. That pipeline is ageing and needed about $110m spent on it to keep it in good working order. But that was not the decision of the NSW govt. It decided to build a new 270km pipeline from the Murray at Wentworth at a cost of $467m (also costing more than $25m annually, at least in the first four years, to run). 37.4 megalitres a day will be pumped from the Murray. A megalitre is one million litres. That would be 1.7 million litres an hour.3799.jpg

This is a pic of the last pipe going in. It’s done. acadd49bab25e4f4e37ef3e4265d3df3.jpegThus there is no need for the Menindee Lakes anymore (‘de-commissioned’), cotton growers can up their demands in the Darling headquarters, and the lower Darling doesn’t need to flow at all. All the flow can be used further north. That can happen. Mr Joyce has noted that this would be most beneficial, and that he thinks it should happen. The argument goes that the Lakes are sources of unsustainable levels of evaporation. At present it is intended to leave four of them with a puddlesworth each. 

And the Murray?

‘Taking the city’s full allocation from the Murray will not have any effect on the river, according to Broken Hill water policy expert Stan Dineen. “That will have no impact,” Mr Dineen said. “It is only a small amount. [That’s up to 10 gigalitres or 10 thousand million litres a year]. They could lose that somewhere and wouldn’t even notice.”‘ (SMH, 17/4/18)

And that’s the second story: the Murray. What sort of shape is it in?

* * * * *


The Murray also runs in part through an arid landscape. IMG_2312.jpgThis pic was taken at Truro, 30 kms from the lush vines of the Barossa (misspelt in an early edict from ‘Barrosa’, a battle the British lost in southern Spain in 1811). Just incidentally, for some unexplained reason people had started stringing up soft toys on fences near here.

But it’s almost gibber, stony desert. Truro hill is the last before the endless plains of the north, and somewhere down there in the haze the Murray is ambling, sedentary, often doubling back on itself as though uncertain of its destination, unable to make up its mind.

gettyimages-540119103-612x612.jpgNot my photo of course, but a very good indication of the nature of much of the river’s course.

Unlike the Darling it doesn’t live off flood waters. It rises in the Australian Alps, nominally at Cowambat Flat not far from Mt. Kosciuszko, living off snow melt and the water that alpine swamps and peat and moss beds hold. The volume of its average annual flow is 10,900 gigalitres, but this is one of these cases where the idea of ‘average’ is plainly unhelpful. Recorded flows 1892-2008:figure3_1.pngThe caption notes that for 2000-08 the average is 3,980GL, one-third of the long term average. 

How was it looking a week or two ago? Pretty good, even if there were a few too many jet skis for my taste.IMG_2236.jpg

But then hell hath no fury like debates about the Murray River.

Its water maintains huge irrigated industries, from dairy to wine (annual output of primary production round $4.5billion, Basin total round $8b). Then there are the countless millions (one estimate: $345m annually) spent by tourists.

But as well its ‘valley’ contains several thousand ‘key environmental assets’, like the Barmah forest, a small flood plain area believed to be very special to the local Yorta Yorta people, 16 wetlands (of a total of 32,000 in the Basin as a whole) protected as highly important under the international Ramsar convention along with more than 110 species of birds and animals which are threatened with extinction.

And then there is the small matter that in dry years it provides most of Adelaide’s potable water as well as maintaining the towns and industries of South Australia’s lower lakes, Albert and Alexandrina.

There are stakeholders growing out of your stakeholders, all sure that Armageddon will follow if their slice is cut more thinly.

So in we wade.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 2.32.59 pm.pngI would like to take as one text Myth and the Murray: Measuring the real state of the river environment by Jennifer Marohasy published as a ‘backgrounder’ by the Institute of Public Affairs in 2003. According to the ABC’s Michael Duffy: ‘She is the best-known proponent of evidence-based science [apparently a special sort] in the country.’

Ms Marohasy has good scientific credentials and this is her conclusion:

‘We have all heard about the declining health of the Murray River, including poor water quality, dying red gums and threats to the continued survival of the Murray cod — this is the popular view in urban Australia. Along the river, communities believe that the end of commercial fishing, a substantial restocking effort, improvements in on-farm practices and the construction of salt-interception schemes have resulted in a healthier river. The available evidence supports the local view and suggests that, with the possible exception of native fish stocks, the river environment is healthy.’

On salinity she provides evidence that suggests that there is no long term trend in salinity levels in the river as measured at three important locations (significant ‘take off’ points). She ventures beyond the river to its floodplain in a discussion of the impact of irrigation on the groundwater salinity which had destroyed the life of vast tracts of land between Kerang and Robinvale.

135,000ha of land were salt-affected in 1995. Thanks to massive effort, both public and private, the anticipated growth of the salt pans to 175,000ha (with the implementation of the restitution plan; 325,000ha without) has seen them actually reduced to less than 10,000ha.

We need good news, and that’s important news. One thing it means, which she seems to gloss over, is that if you put your back into a problem with some keen thought and common concern you might be able to fix it.

Fish: she acknowledges the take has reduced mightily since the early 20th century when it was common for the annual catch of Murray Cod to be in the order of 1500 tonnes. In 1928, there were 1300 commercial fishermen operating on the Murray. This had started to become economically unviable by the 1930s due to declining fish numbers. In 1993 the number of commercial fishers was down to 28 and now there are none. But, she says, the number of Cod and Silver Perch going up and down the Torrumbarry fishway has been reasonably steady over the 10 years for which she had data (1992-2002). 

739_0_BU4355.jpgHer data on turbidity and unhelpful added nutrients like phosphorus show no special trend over the time series she has, and she pooh poohs the claim by the Wentworth Group (of distinguished scientists) that ‘vast numbers of 300-year old red gums are dying along the Murray floodplain due to extreme drought following a severely depleted river flow’. She persuades herself this is not true because the method of assessment was visual and not sufficiently rigorous, but also because the annual remedial flows that now flood the Barmah Forest (above) are correcting the problem.

She has also found a research paper that suggests rather courageously and against the flow of conventional wisdom that: It is well documented that the Aboriginal presence, far from having a benign impact on the landscape, resulted in the extinction of many animal species and maintained the Australian flora, particularly in semi-arid regions, in a fire-mediated sub-climax.’ Her conclusion is that the Barmah Forest only exists because of the control on Aboriginal seasonal burning which resulted from European occupation.

I’d like to believe her conclusion, just as she would like me to. Stay calm. We can put aside grounds for concern: everything is okay. The $13b assigned to correcting the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin is yet another example of irrational and futile government waste. And as far as she goes, she’s convincing and she does have some good points to make.

However, in typical IPA fashion, she begins her paper with a swipe at the CSIRO, the Wentworth Group and other collections of scientists (who swarm around this topic) and bureaucrats, accusing them of not listening to the locals who know and love their river, of relying on trivial evidence and then making it lean in an ideological direction thereby producing deceptive results unnecessarily catastrophising the facts. But if making a case for a pre-existing point of view is a sin, she’s standing in a bucket of guilt which goes well up past her withers.

In two moves that are typical, Ms Marohasy says: one, there is a category mistake. The bad guys treat the Murray as though it was a wild river. It is not, and hasn’t been for more than century when they started up the big pumps near Mildura.

While the Australian Bureau of Statistics report gives the impression that the ‘degradation’ to the Murray River by way of ‘salinity, loss of fish species and algal blooms’ is caused by water diversions leaving too little water in the river, a total water balance is not provided to enable a comparison of the amount of water extraction with the amount of water stored by the dams. In reality, as a consequence of the increase in government storage capacity (i.e., dams) over the last 50 years, the water level in the main stem of the river is unnaturally high for much of the length of river, most of the time.

She also offers a fairly well-rehearsed photo of the Murray to show what it can be like, ‘naturally’: the bed of the Murray at Koondrook downstream from Swan Hill in 1914.

Dry Murray 1914 blog.JPG

There are five or six of these photos. They were all taken in the drought years 1901, 1915 and 1923, and are all immediately downstream of major irrigation outtakes which were hard at work.

But she’s quite right to argue that beginning with the idea that all engineering works should be removed from the river (there are more than 3000 dams on the rivers in the Basin) is nonsense, but it’s hard to find examples of this notion expressed, especially in government publications. It’s the proverbial straw man.

The second move is to say, there are no hard data. All these scientists at work, but they don’t know what they are doing. They are making conclusions from models and projections the terms of which are usually wrong. A typical complaint: No data are provided to establish an actual link between diversions and river health, and no other measured statistics are provided to give an indication of actual river health. 

Well, the clear fact is that those scientists are hard at work. Marohasy’s paper was published some time ago (2003) and maybe there has been massive outcropping of research publication since that time, but a contrary document published in 2012 from one of her bêtes noires, the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology, has a source list of more than 3000 references to support its contentions, starting at ABS/ABARE/BRS (2009) Socio-economic context for the Murray-Darling Basin descriptive report and finishing at Zukowski S, and Walker KF (2009) Freshwater snails in competition: alien Physa acuta (Physidae) and native Glyptophysa gibbosa (Planorbidae) in the River Murray, South Australia. Those references are all related to her topic.

The CRCFE paper is not concerned with agriculture or tourism. It is A Review of River Ecosystem Condition in the Murray-Darling Basin. Its conclusion: Significant degradation of all systems examined.

The authors also point out that: Water dependent ecosystems are complex, dynamic networks with multiple feedback mechanisms that will respond to changes in either the physical or biological environment or the movement of material between components of the system in ways that can be difficult to predict. This places ecosystems in a similar category to the stock market or the human brain. This complexity affects our capacity to clearly ascribe causality to system changes, especially in situations where there have been various applications of multiple interacting pressures applied to the system. 

The CRCFE paper makes specific conclusions about particular areas and one is the Coorong and Murray Mouth.

The Coorong and Murray Mouth is the only estuary within the Basin and therefore a critical window on cumulative change evident across the Basin, particularly in the lower sections. …The primary cause of decline across the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth has been identified as reduced inflows, changed magnitude and frequency of flooding exacerbated by drought.

The evidence of the relationship between reduced inflows and declining ecological condition has been well documented and researched. The Coorong and Lower Lakes are listed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, with an Ecological Character Description benchmarked for 1985 when the site was listed. In preparing the Ecological Character Description clearly stated that the character of the site at the time of listing was already ‘seriously degraded’.

The overriding driver of the condition of the Coorong and Lower Lakes is altered hydrology. Reduced flow volumes, reduced frequency and duration of medium-sized flood events in spring, and increased risk of the Murray Mouth closing are the main factors implicated in observed environmental changes at the site.IMG_2122.jpg

Half way along the Coorong last January (2019).


Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 12.55.15 pm.pngAs the Murray approaches the coast, it forms the terminal lakes of Alexandrina and Albert (the ‘lower lakes’) before dividing into five channels that flow into the Murray Mouth area. 

At the river’s end, the Murray water either flows into the sea or enters the Coorong, a system of tidal lagoons and coastal dunes that stretches approximately 100 kilometres southeasterly from the mouth.

The actual mouth of the river is a relatively narrow, and at time restricted, tidal inlet that flows between a much wider gap in the coastal dunes. This channel is the only open ocean link for the river, and also forms the only connection between the sea and the saltwater lagoons of the Coorong.

The Murray Mouth forms part of the Coorong National Park, and the entire Murray estuary is listed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Although the environment of the estuary has altered significantly due to European settlement, the lower lakes, Murray Mouth and the Coroong continue to be areas of outstanding national and international conservation value, especially as a habitat for birds. Stormboy for example.

These are the facts as presented by Bruce Thom, Chair at the time of the National State of Environment Committee.

One [Murray-Darling] Basin Plan objective is for the mouth to “remain open at frequencies, for durations, and with passing flows, sufficient to enable the conveyance of salt, excess nutrients and sediment from the Murray-Darling Basin to the ocean”. A target for the mouth was for it to be open without the need for dredging in at least 95% of years. But this target is far from being met; more realistically we estimate that the mouth will require dredging in at least 95% of years. 

But how permanently was the Murray mouth open away, or over time was it periodical, and therefore something we don’t need to worry about? Was the mouth open or not, for example, when Sturt came on it in 1830? A vocal and vehement group surrounding Ms Marohasy say, no. He had trouble getting through the mud flats, and the opening was closed.  But from Sturt’s journal: ‘The entrance appeared to me to be somewhat less than a quarter of a mile in breadth. Under the sand hill on the off side, the water is deep and the current strong. … The mouth of the channel is defended by a double line of breakers.’  The natural closure of the mouth may well be possible, but this is not the evidence I would choose for confirmation.

But, some say, that issue is only a symptom. We need to get on to the real problem. ‘The blocked Murray mouth has become a symbol of greed, and unsustainability. This has spurred water reform. But this is misguided and ignores history and the nature of barrier estuaries.’ This comes from the ‘Myth and the Murray Group’. Where they want to focus attention is on the estuarine nature of the lower lakes. Are they a changing transition zone between salt and fresh water influenced by tides, wave patterns, seasons, floods, droughts, or are they and have they always been fresh?

In 2006 water levels in Lake Alexandrina fell precipitously from 0.85 metres above sea level to -1.10 metres below. There was simply not enough water in upstream dams to keep both Lake Alexandrina and the adjacent smaller Lake Albert supplied with adequate water. And this is what the Goolwa Channel looked like.Screen Shot 2019-01-25 at 4.17.26 pm.pngSo why didn’t the sea rush in to accommodate this variation in levels?

Because of the Barrages. The five Goolwa Barrages, 7.6 km of them in total, were constructed in order to reduce salinity levels in the lower reaches of the River Murray, Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert. From the 1900s, with the advent of increasingly large irrigation schemes, landowners along the lower reaches of the river strongly urged the construction of these barrages, primarily to keep the water fresh in the lower reaches of the River Murray, as well as Lake Albert and Lake Alexandrina.

Work commenced in 1935 and was completed in 1940. Their impact is to cause an increase in water level of approximately 50 cm as far upstream as Lock 1 at Blanchetown (274 km from the mouth). Aerial_view_of_River_Murray_barrages_with_superimposed_text_-_PRG-1258-2-546.jpeg

So, from one perspective anyway, ‘instead of being a healthy estuarine ecosystem of 75,000 ha, characterized by mixing of brackish and fresh water with highly variable flows, the barrage construction has transformed the lakes into freshwater bodies with permanently raised water levels and distorted ecology’.

The first part of this view is confirmed by early maps. Like this one, the first: John Arrowsmith 1838.Screen Shot 2019-01-25 at 4.18.41 pm.png

The area behind Hindmarsh island is clearly labelled ‘salt’ and the middle of Lake Alexandrina ‘brackish’. (You may note that the mouth figures, open, on this map.)

But there’s another equally vehement point of view. Contrary to what many believe today, salt water intrusions into the lake environment were not common until after 1900 when significant water resource development had occurred in the River Murray system (Sim and Muller: A Fresh History of the Lakes to the Mouth 1800-1935). This study describes the sense of South Australian injustice at the consequences of the Victorian and NSW irrigators and essentially makes a historical case for the existence of the barrages. They were essential for a fair water deal for South Australians, and even so Victorians could take less out of the damned Murray.

And as Bruce Thom writes they provide major contribution to the closure of the mouth. The tidal basin pre-barrages was approximately 100 square km and post-barrages around 10. As a consequence the power of the tidal exchange was greatly reduced. Along with this reduction and the progressive extraction of river flows upstream, sand from the sea began to accumulate at the river mouth. The river started to choke such that in the early 1980s and again during the millennial drought it closed. Sand from alongshore and offshore was feeding into the entrance so that dredging was required. We now know that only major flood flows such as occurred in late 2010 can flush the sand from the entrance. Massive sand volumes within the entrance have further weakened tidal flows and the sand keeps coming once flood flows subside.

So, should we prop up an artificial freshwater environment which generates these negative consequences? The people building the housing development and marina at Goolwa think so. So do the people working the farms which surround the lakes. So do the citizens of Adelaide whether they realise it or not, because only this way can the fresh quality of the backup supply of their drinking water be guaranteed. 

Or should we join the climate change deniers who have chosen to make the estuarine nature of the lower Murray an issue, and open the barrages, especially the Mundoo barrage which lines up with the mouth and which would help significantly with scouring to keep the entrance open? The silting of Lake Alexandrina would be significantly reduced. It might even help to save the Coorong.

What’s the official line? This is from a paper ‘All about the barrages’ published, but not endorsed by (!, so cautious), the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in 2011 and updated in 2017. The ‘Key Messages’:

  • There are different opinions on whether the Lower Lakes were predominantly freshwater, estuarine or saline before European settlement. However, the weight of evidence shows that the Lakes were mainly fresh, with short periods where some flows from the sea entered the Lakes.
  • The barrages are not the only cause of ecological change in the Lower Lakes; decreased flows from upstream usage has a big impact.
  • Removing the barrages might have some limited environmental benefits, for example, preventing acid sulphate soils in the Lower Lakes area during severe droughts. At the same time though, this would allow sea water to flow in causing drastic changes to the ecology. It would not return the environment to a ‘natural state’ without significant reduction in upstream water usage. A natural estuarine environment – where substantial quantities of fresh and sea water mix – would only be returned if the natural end-of-system flows were returned.
  • Removal of the barrages would not reduce the need for freshwater flows into the lakes, which are not simply ‘lost’ to evaporation, but rather flush salt from the entire system and also provide base flows for water delivery and environmental benefits along the entire river.

The authors point out that:

It is true that the construction of the barrages has significantly changed the ecology of the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth; particularly in times of drought. However, simply removing the barrages would not reinstate these original ecosystems. Firstly, we must factor in the effect of the development that has already taken place in the Basin. Water used for irrigation, agriculture and drinking has significantly reduced flows from what would have been the natural situation, and it is not practical or desirable to stop these activities.

And neither it is. But …

* * * * * * *



It wasn’t me, said the Minister.

As the Minister travelled past residents with placards in hands, the wash from the speed boat stirred up the dead fish causing the crowd to cover their noses.

After avoiding the 150 protesters gathered, Mr Blair met with a select few in a different spot 400 metres upstream amid a heavy police presence.

‘It stinks, it’s rotten, it’s putrid. And it’s not just in the river, it’s in our water systems through town,’ chairperson of the Menindee Barkandji Elders Group Patricia Doyle said. ‘When you shower you can smell this water. Drinking this water? It’s awful’.

Darryn Clifton from the Darling River Action Group said Mr Blair was being disrespectful. ‘A good mob of people turned out here today to listen to what he [Mr Blair] had to say and he came here and said nothing.’

A spokesperson for the Minister later denied there was ever an official event organised with locals. Minister Blair said he had not been responsible for the water flow levels.


It was me, said the  Federal Drought Envoy!

“We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the back door, and that was a hard ask,” he said in the recording.

“A couple of nights ago on Four Corners, you know what that’s all about? It’s about them trying to take more water off you, trying to create a calamity. A calamity for which the solution is to take more water off you, shut more of your towns down.”5ab624eff99df67b104c414fca1a1d11.jpeg

* * * * * * *

IMG_2111.jpgAnd what about the Coorong? What will happen to it?

The Coorong gets gradually more salty as it runs more than 100 kilometres from the north lagoon down to the south, and as that happens the biodiversity changes too.

“As you come down that gradient the biodiversity changes from being lots of little fishes at the top end, and when you get to the south lagoon there’s just one fish left. In hyper saline water, three times as salty as the ocean, it’s really salt tolerant,” Mr Paton said. “Some people would know it as whitebait, but it’s hardyhead. There’s one prominent invertebrate, it’s a little chironomid, and there’s one key aquatic plant, a plant called Ruppia tuberosa. Only three living things. …

Read on … it’s fascinating.